Organic Food: Healthy or Hype?
Organic food’s popularity has doubled in the last five years. So, is it worth it to buy organic, especially when bright ruby tomatoes sit across the produce aisle at sometimes half the price of their organic counterparts?
To be certified organic, as specified by the USDA in 2001, crops must not have been treated with synthetic fertilizers and or pesticides, genetically modified organisms or irradiation. Advocates of organics say these seemingly minor changes in food production help make organic food a healthier option.
One of the primary reasons people seek organic foods is to eliminate the chemical toxins found in the food supply. According to a Food and Drug Administration Report, ninety-seven percent of produce is said to contain little to no remnants of pesticides. Yet consider this: in 1999 alone, more than 985 million pounds of spray chemicals were used in America’s farming. The EPA lists at least one-fifth of these chemicals as carcinogenic in humans.
If we’re using potent chemicals to kill critters that thrive off of our strawberries, then what might this same toxin do to us, to our children? Research uncovers possible side effects. A 2004 report published by the Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health concluded a link between pesticides used in New York apartments and impaired fetal growth.
Additionally, the National Academy of Sciences reported in 1999 that chemicals found in pesticides could decrease sperm counts in birds, fish and other animals. While pesticides may be washed off produce before it reaches the grocery store, statistics like those of the FDA do not account for pesticides contaminating water run-off or pesticide laden produce consumed by animals prior to washing. Those 985 million pounds of pesticides don’t just vanish; they go somewhere — in our atmosphere, in our water, in our wild birds and bees.
Another health benefit of eating organic produce is increased nutritional value. Organic milk, for example, has 68% more omega-three fatty acids than normal milk. Conversely, conventionally grown spinach has only 3% and commercial tomatoes have only .0005% of the amount of iron as their organic counterparts. When plants are left to fend for themselves without the use of pesticides, they produce their own lines of defense, which later show up as potent antioxidants. Similar to showing your hubby how to do the laundry so you don’t have to do it, plants (and therefore, we) benefit nutritionally when made to work on their own.
Additionally, proponents claim organic foods taste better. Most have traces of the soil from which they sprang, the water from which they were fed, the vine from which they ripened. A berry grown in California’s Central Valley should taste different than one grown in Omaha.
Yet, there are several downsides to purchasing organic. The first has to do with cost. At Trader Joe’s in San Diego, organic bananas and apples cost ten cents more than conventional ones. This increase in cost is due in large part to the intense amount of labor that goes into organic farming, as well as the expensive process of being certified organic and maintaining the license. The science of conventional farming makes it much cheaper: according to a June 2007 report by Facts on File News Services, it costs thirty dollars to spray one acre with synthetic pesticides versus one thousand dollars to weed the same acreage by hand. This increase in cost is seen in consumers’ pocket books.
Furthermore, purchasing organic is not always the most environmentally sound choice, which seems counterintuitive. For example, if your grocer offers conventionally grown peaches from your community, as well as organic ones grown on a farm across the country, or perhaps even in another country, it is more judicious to choose the peaches grown closer, though not organic. The cost of transporting food, including duress on the produce and use of fossil fuels, comes at a high price. Conventional agriculture is not grown these days to taste divine, but rather, to endure a drive from California’s Central Valley to the breadbasket of Kansas. Remember how cramped and tired you were the last time you flew from LAX to JFK? Consider how your mango feels after its flight from Costa Rica or your kiwi after its journey from New Zealand. The freshest fruit travels the least and incurs the least environmental transportation costs.
Consumption of food from far away sources was one of the culprits in last summer’s E. coli outbreak. The spinach, grown and packaged in California, was transported to and infected people as far away as Maine. Recently, Canadian couple Alisa Smith and James MacKinnon explored the food transportation industry. Their finding spawned the 100-miled diet, where participants attempt to consume only products that the origin can be traced within 100 miles of where they live. The couple recounts their eating local challenges in “Plenty: One Man, One Woman, and a Raucous Year of Eating Locally.” Their insightful, often funny narrative lifts the veil from the often shrouded world of food distribution. Well-known fiction novelist Barbara Kingsolver recounts her version of the 100-mile diet in her new book, “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle” and even moves her family cross-country to take up gardening on a large scale.
So when should you opt for organic, and when should you pick the conventional produce? Here is a quick list to help you determine when it’s best to shell out an extra dollar or two. Generally speaking, produce with an outer layer able to be peeled away (avocadoes, bananas, corn) tends to be safe, as any residual pesticides will be tossed with the skin. But other produce with thin or edible skin will usually contain traces of pesticides. A study of apples found they contained the highest amounts of pesticides — in one study, a single apple revealed seven different pesticides. Dairy products are also big culprits, primarily because the cows are chock full of growth hormone, pesticide-laden grains (cows are not meant to eat grain) and even their own feces. Organic regulations prohibit all this. Coffee, wine, chocolate, cucumbers, grapes, strawberries, peaches, spinach, green beans, cantaloupe, bell peppers, celery and pears also top the chart for high levels of pesticides.
A consumer’s best bet for fresh, healthy foods can be found in their own backyard. Most communities host seasonal farmer’s markets, where consumers can interact with the people who grew their food, ask questions about levels of pesticide use, and obtain produce often picked the day before the market. Interested consumers can also shop around for a CSA, consumer supported agriculture vendor. In this program, consumers provide money up front to farmers for a year or a portion of it, and reap the benefits of the harvest along with the farmer. A traditional CSA box overflows with organic greens and fruits, keeping the consumer in fresh, healthy produce year-round.
To find out where a farmer’s market takes place near you, browse: farmersmarketsusa.org
For more information on when to choose organic, consider reading Cindy Burke’s “To Buy or Not to Buy Organic.”